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CURTAIN CALL: Rhinos in Love
From THAT'S SHANGHAI August 2008 Print & Web Edition

By Mina Choi


Bad boy of theater Meng Jinghui came back to Shanghai in July with Rhinoceros in Love, the very first play by the young playwright Liao Yimei written in 1999. After shaking up the theater audience with his hilarious Two Dogs and mystifying others with his surreal In the Mirror, Meng came armed with yet another sell-out production, this time a tale of a crazy, obsessive love that has kept many young women enraptured since the play’s debut nine years ago. By the time this production finally landed in Shanghai, all the tickets were sold out.

So what is it about this play that was making people fork over hundreds of RMB to the scalpers on a weekday evening? Well, Rhinoceros in Love is about a young, passionate zookeeper named Ma Lu, who tends a rhinoceros by day and obsesses over his neighbor Ming Ming by night. He runs into her in the stairwell and cannot get her out of his mind. She becomes his everything, and despite the fact that she doesn’t quite return his love, he will not be dissuaded. Standing at the top of a minimalist steel-scaffolding, Ma Lu declares his feelings for Ming Ming: “You’re the bright day that I yearn for/ You’re the hunger that I cannot take/ You’re the air that I need to breathe/You’re the pair of gloves for my cold hand; my cold beer/You bring me the sun.”

It’s enough to make most young girls swoon, especially since Zhang Nianhua, who plays Ma Lu, smolders like the young Marlon Brando. His object of desire, Ming Ming, however, is in love with someone else and her love, too, burns in that manic-crazy way, just not for Ma Lu. Livening up the production are Ma Lu’s buddies, who try to procure another girlfriend for him so that he’ll get over Ming Ming. They sing, they dance, they perform comic antics; they even stage a beauty contest, but Ma Lu will not give up on Ming Ming.

Interestingly enough, while the young--mostly female--audience, remained glued to their seat for the duration of play, even staying another thirty minutes for a post-stage discussion with Meng, an older 50-year old couple next to me yawned their way through the play, text-messaged on their mobile phones, and left half way through the play—a clear demonstration the generational difference when it came to appreciating obsessive, juvenile love. Or it may have been that the older couple were nonplussed by the razzle-dazzle of Meng’s talents—his ability to use music, video, and lighting to create a heightened atmosphere—which some have criticized as “too hip.”

The acting was suitably impassioned, and the score haunting, but despite all the torment and ardor displayed by the two leads, the play didn’t leave a lot of residue. It felt like a long music video—with great images and sensations, and even a few good lines, but not a stage piece that took the audience on a journey.

During the post-show discussion, the waif-like playwright, Liao, discussed the inspiration for the name of her play. She said that Rhinoceros in Love came about because the animal is similar to Ma Lu: strong and tough, yet gentle inside. Liao felt that one core message of her play was to ‘persist,’ which puzzled me. ‘Persist’ didn’t seem like the right advice to give someone who is obsessing over someone. Isn’t that what you say when someone is going through hardship?

Never mind, because it seems that I was the only skeptic in the audience (save for an elderly couple who had left already). The young audience members all gushed over the production, telling Meng and Liao how moving the play was, which made think: geez, I'm really getting too old for this twenty-something theater.

As for what’s happening in August—there’s really not much on. Almost everything important has been put on hold during the Olympic games, which means forget about it until September! Stay at home and watch the games instead.

July 2008, The Scandinavian Invasion (read)

June 2008, 1930's Sing-Song Nostalgia on the Bund (read)

May 2008, The Two Hamlets (read)

April 2008, Strippers and Princesses (read)

March 2008, Snow Storm and Bestiality (read)

February 2008, A Recap of the Spectacular Fall 2007 season (read)


For a complete list of Theater Articles by Mina Choi click HERE